Hip-Hop and Eurovision: A 25 year history

| August 17, 2020

At the 1995 Eurovision Song Contest, the United Kingdom was represented by a song titled Love City Groove, sung by a group also called Love City Groove. Did I say sung? I meant rapped. Yes, that’s right; throughout the performance, members Yinka “Reason” Charles and Jay Williams exchanged romantic lines in a steady flow, clad in the oversized flannel most commonly associated with 90s California rappers. And so, that night onstage in Dublin, Love City Groove became the first hip-hop song to compete in the Eurovision.

Love City Groove delivered a solid number with technical skill and a catchy chorus, and was rewarded with a respectable tenth place finish. That should mean the Eurovision community would fully embrace hip-hop, right? Well, not quite. A quarter century after Love City Groove, hip-hop still feels like somewhat of an anomaly at Eurovision, but its presence in the contest has grown and taken on many forms. This article examines the history of hip-hop at Eurovision, by looking at some its most inspiring – and embarrassing – appearances in the contest.

The Novelty Factor

Two years after Love City Groove, Eurovision saw another rap entry, again dealing with infatuation. This is where the similarities end though, as Kølig Kaj’s Stemmen i mit liv, the 1997 Danish entry, describes a far less conventional romance. Kølig confesses his love for a phone operator, an obsession which ruins his social life and financial state. The staging is just as quirky as the subject matter, complete with a backing singer seated at an office desk, and Kølig himself in eyeball-melting leopard-print pants.

Stemmen i mit liv finished in a rather disappointing 16th place, but since then, many more entries would use rap for novelty purposes. Sometimes it would prove successful, as was the case for German comedian Stefan Raab, who represented his country at the 2000 Eurovision with “Wadde hadde dudde da?”. Decked out in golden disco attire and spitting mostly nonsensical lyrics in a made-up German dialect, Raab’s unintelligible yet passionate delivery landed Germany at fifth place. More often than not, though, Europe would turn its nose up at such zany rappers.

In 2006, The United Kingdom gave hip-hop another shot at Eurovision with Daz Sampson, known mostly for his club versions of old hits. His entry, Teenage Life, finds him reminiscing over his school days, an interesting sentiment botched by a few select lyrics and not to mention the awkward classroom staging. Nostalgia feels much less compelling when you’re a grown men thinking of “those sixth form chicks that misbehave,” while your backing singers are dressed in schoolgirl uniforms. A far cry from the first British rap entry, Teenage Life ended up in 19th place.

Many more rap entries since Teenage Life have amped up the corny, lightweight side of the genre, often suffering a worse fate. Finland’s 2009 entry, Lose Control by Waldo’s People, featured heavily accented rapping, drowned out by the dance beat and the chorus singers. It got to the final solely by the grace of juries, but unfortunatley finished in last place. And this was a success in comparison to Woki mit deim Popo, the 2012 Austrian entry by EDM-rap duo Trackshittaz. The sleazy ode to backsides, performed in the duo’s regional dialect, scored the poorest of all entries that year, finishing last in its semi-final with only 8 points.

The Serious Side

In parallel to the goofy, party aspect of hip-hop, several Eurovision entries have used the genre’s verbosity to try and convey deeper messages. The earliest example of this is Putnici, Dino Merlin’s first appearance for Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1999, alongside french singer Béatrice. While the music – dominated by a violin, saxaphone and assorted percussion doesn’t scream hip-hop, Dino does rap his verses in a soft monotone as he accepts life’s unexpected turns and the passage of time.

Putnici, which reached seventh place, actually set an interesting precedent for Eurovision songs mixing rap with regional sounds. This combination worked well for Joci Pápai’s Origo, Hungary’s 2017 entry, melding electronic beats with Romani influences. After detailing his experiences with bigotry, Pápai goes on an extended rap verse describing the confidence he gets from his religious faith and his music. Origo finished eighth, one place below the much sillier Romanian entry mixing rap and yodeling.

That kind of success didn’t happen for Utopian Land, the 2016 entry from Greek group Argo. Like Trackshittaz, Argo rapped in their local dialect, in this case Pontic Greek, but this was a much more respectable performance. A celebration of the group’s regional culture in its instruments and choreography, the lyrics portray a nostalgic journey back home to drink and dance with loved ones. Perhaps this genre mix was too extreme as Greece, with its third rapped entry, failed to qualify to the final for the first time in its Eurovision history.

Other entries have used hip-hop’s socially conscious roots more boldly, and likewise failed to capture the international audience. The most prominent example was Ukraine’s 2005 entry, Razom nas bahato by the band GreenJolly. Already an anthem for the Orange Revolution protests following Ukraine’s 2004 presidential election, the song’s less explicit Eurovision version was still a defiant call to action against corruption and oppression. Perhaps due to its confusing bilingualism or overt political tone, the performance didn’t go down well. Despite a rave reception by the local crowd in Kiev, GreenJolly’s rap-rock hybrid only managed to reach 19th place.

Slow Road to Success

These examples suggest that, as a whole, hip-hop is an odd fit for Eurovision, whether it’s presented as fun-loving or profound. This sentiment is echoed in much of the discourse about the contest. For instance, a 2013 BBC documentary named rap the #1 genre to avoid at Eurovision, despite showing Daz Sampson argue for its potential. And just this year, in an interview about the movie Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, music producer Savan Koetcha defined the mock Swedish entry Coolin’ with da Homies as an attempt to write “the wackest rap on the planet.”

However, the sound of rapping isn’t total anathema to Eurovision fans. One song featuring rapping actually won the contest: Sertab Erener’s Everyway That I Can, Turkey’s 2003 entry. It’s a short and rather unimpressive moment, but it’s there. There are several other entries which have taken hip-hop to the top 10 of the scoreboard, some of which were highlighted here. Had the 2020 contest taken place, perhaps similar success could occur for Latvia’s Still Breathing, where Samanta Tīna spits a brief but memorable rap verse, or Armenia’s Chains on You, where Athena Manoukian oozes hip-hop and R&B swagger.

25 years after Love City Groove performed in Dublin, hip-hop’s relationship with the Eurovision remains mixed. Many of the genre’s appearances in the contest have been deemed tasteless, forgettable or non-Eurovision like, in any way. Some of this treatment is justified, some seems like a backlash to the genre’s immense global popularity. But just like the Eurovision itself, hip-hop is a diverse world of music that’s equally entertaining and meaningful to its followers. As more countries include rap entries in their national finals, it seems Eurovision and hip-hop are slowly finding common ground. Hopefully it won’t be too long before rap lyrics can reach the glass microphone trophy.

Hip Hop at Eurovision – are you a fan or not? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!

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